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Secrets of Chen Village with Master Chen Qingzhou

by Marian K. Castinado

As a child in Chen Village, China in the 1930s, life for him was hard. Sickly, with some lung and stomach disease, he was living in a time and place where there was little food, and like a scene from The Good Earth, the people of the area sometimes ate dirt to survive.

But in spite of such abject poverty, treasured as sacred within their culture was a jewel beyond worth - too valuable to sell, too precious to ignore: the Chen Family Taiji.

This nine-year-old Chen Qingzhou, hoping to improve his health, began training in taiji postures, working first with his father, Chen Wufang. The elder man was not of a high skill, but he could play well, and the lessons progressed in difficulty. Even under the most stressful of circumstances, when Chen Qingzhou and his father had to leave their home during the Japanese invasions and thousands of people were being killed, they left their home town, Кbut continued to train. The boy's love for taiji became very strong, and his father encouraged the search for a better teacher, the one who could bestow the next level of difficulty. In 1962, at age 19, Chen Qingzhou stood before Master Chen Zhaopi, a famous instructor of the time, and asked for indoor status as a student.

Why did he choose this style? "My last name is Chen," Master Chen Qingzhou states with a laugh that transcends language. "In that area we didn't even see any other kind of martial art. My father, everyone, practiced it."

It was just before the cultural revolution of the mid-1960s, when only echoes would remain from these days when everyone trained - or were the "echoes" the distant sound of practitioners underground in little rooms, keeping the sacred art alive like sorcerers conjuring a time thought dead? Ironic then, that Chen Qingzhou's training hall was a graveyard - Liberation Cemetery in Wenxian - the only quiet spot where he could practice when not with his teacher. Perhaps inspired by the spirits of his ancestors, Chen Qingzhou's power grew so great that Chen Zhaopi granted him permission to teach in 1963, after only one year of tutelage.

In those days, the Chinese people were poor and didn't travel much, but Chen Qingzhou went to teach in outlying provinces, and first encountered Hsing I, Long Fist and Shaolin at tournaments. "I saw a lot of the chi gong where they were breaking bricks on their foreheads," recalls Master Chen, speaking through his student Kris Eckert. "Their bodies were hard, and I said, 'We're not like that, we're just the opposite, our body is soft and the inside is hard as a rock." At first they were all somewhat afraid of us, and at the competitions all the divisions were separated, so they really didn't have an opportunity to 'touch hands' - to do any fighting. But then later they did play push hands, or free fighting, and it was very easy for the high-skilled Chen players to take all this hard energy and dissipate it, lead them into emptiness and then at that point exert force and finish them off.

"Out opponent's first reaction was admiration. They said, 'We used so much chi force, and you just put us down so easily.' They were in awe. Their outer strength was really strong. That energy was still there, but the Chen players utilized that hard energy against the people.

"I saw the very traditional aspects and wanted to dig deeper, to research this," says Master Chen. "Chen Taiji is esoteric; you can't touch it with the hand, you have to feel it, see it, watch it; it's got to be experienced by every sense of the body. I wanted to get the answers to some of these mysteries. I had a good relationship with my master and really liked traditional Chinese culture. My teacher loved me as well because I had a love for the gung fu and trained really hard. I was with my teacher for nine years, and went on my bicycle an hour from the city where I worked, to train."

He would study under his teacher until Chen Zhaopi's death. The place where he trained still stands, little more than a small mud hut, yet sacred as the place where a treasure was passed on to its 19th generation.

Today, Master Chen is one of the most respected practitioners in China, where in 1994 he was named one of 12 people in the five recognized taiji styles as da shi, or grandmaster. General instructor and head coach at the Chen Family Taijiquan Research and Training Centers in Wenxian and Chenjiagou, he was also vice-secretary general of the Wenxian International Meeting of Taijiquan. A noted author, he has been invited to act as head coach in ten Chinese provinces, and has taught more than ten thousand students, many of whom - including Chen Qingzhou's sons - have achieved great competitive honors. Having rejected the so-called New Frame Chen style as taught by Chen Zhaokui, youngest son of Chen Fake, Chen Qingzhou decided to preserve the Old Frame that he learned from Chen Zhaopi, a decision that drew prejudice he will only hint at, then quickly change the subject.

But the ancient system was strong enough to survive this attack as well. It had to be, for in generations before, its tenets kept its practitioners alive against their enemies. Strengthened through centuries of family lineage, it had seemed that the style would remain secret forever, passed down only to the males of the family, so that no girls could carry the system to a new husband's home. But as with any treasure, legend magnifies its gleam, and the word of its glories spread until sometime after 1644 during the Ching dynasty, in the 14th generation, when a young man named Yang Luchan pretended that he was mute and very poor, and the Chen family gave him a job. Week after week he watched the family practicing Chen Taiji until one day, so excited about what he saw, he shouted out, "Very Good!" Caught in his deception, Yang had no choice but to confess that he wanted to learn, and to ask for indoor student status from Chen Chang Xin, who agreed to teach him.

Yang Luchan also had a nickname, Siao Hu, meaning Little Tiger. He was also called Yang the Invincible. No one could beat his gung fu skill, which did not deviate from the Chen Family Taiji boxing system. But when he passed that art on to Yang Luchan's sons and grandchildren, they took out some of the bao fa jing, or hard elements, changing the style. The reasoning was that they were teaching the emperor's family, who because of a life of ease weren't hard workers, and didn't want to sweat, to nurse bumps and bruises; the system became Yang style taiji, which is the soft side of taiji.

One Yang Luchan was taught, it opened the doors, and people with different last names came in. They learned Chen Family Taiji, but many went out of the village, did their own boxing, and put their name to it, resulting in different "frames" being studied within the Chen Family Taiji. Most of them changed the names to their own names. "Chen Family Taiji boxing has gone through many changes, and it's constantly evolving," says Chen Qingzhou diplomatically. Nonetheless, he is determined that the true treasure will remain intact.

Modern Newcomers
Outsiders are still being welcomed to hold the taiji treasure known as Chen, and Chen Qingzhou is no less generous with his wisdom than the generations of masters before. A prime example is the acceptance of indoor student Eckert, known in China as Jin Taiyang, a 43-year-old American who "went into China, through the underground gung fu network trying to find someone like him. Most of the foreigners don't get taught all that much, and I can say that because I've been in China; I've paid money, gotten tricked and run through the gamut," she says.

After two years she found Chen Qingzhou. "He's called himself a recluse; his picture isn't in all the magazines in China. It's really just the gung fu people who know of him," she says. On December 21, 1993, "I went and told my story to his wife in my then very broken Chinese," Eckert recalls. "I carried with me the very traditional bag of apples and oranges that you take before a gung fu master. The next day he actually knocked on my door."

"She has the ability to chi ku" - to eat bitter, meaning to endure the hardships of training - "Her time in China and how she came to find me proved that," recalls Chen Qingzhou. "Also, on that [first] day I asked her to zhan zhuang (perform the rooting posture). She was able to endure a low posture a very low time. I was impressed with her ability to persevere.

"His generosity in teaching me has been overwhelming, and this is not characteristic," says Eckert, who lives in the Chen village. "He was so willing to give me these secrets, and a lot of people said, 'don't give it up; you're giving too much,' but he wants to give it. Protecting the gung fu cost him a lot. He wanted to preserve the original. He actually took offense when I said to him, 'Are you teaching me as much as you teach your sons?' He got very angry and said, 'Look, I'm teaching you better, because you're here 24 hours a day and you work hard.' That shows his character and his heart. He has the skill and he wants to spread it."

Complete Art
Part of spreading this knowledge was a seminar tour of the United States earlier this year. Among the differences between the countries' taiji, Master Chen notes that "here there is a time pressure. In China, traditionally and even to this day, things are very relaxed. In the beginning, a student might practice zhan zhuang or the stationary rooting posture for at least a month. The fundamental training would take as long as one year, but here, because these seminars are for a short time - two hours, three hours, four hours - you have to try to cram a lot of information into a short time. During the four-hour sessions, people are getting a full spectrum: the zhan zhuang, the basic exercises, they also want a lot of push hands and applications. You can't get a complete, comprehensive understanding about what is going on in the taiji or the push hands [in that time].

"I don't play wing chun and tae kwon do and all the other things, so I do not want to make a comment on their training methods. I don't want to criticize. But I have seen some people in the park and watched their basic fundamental training," says Master Chen.

"The most important element in Chen taiji quan is that one side is the hard, and one side is the soft side," he says. "You have to have them both at the same time; you can't disregard the other one. I have seen a lot of Yang style here in America and in China - it is the same - the parks are full of Yang style taiji. They practice with almost entirely soft energy. This is not a criticism. I am only noting that the Chen style taiji has both hardness and softness. You can't just practice soft energy, you must also express the development of that soft energy which comes out in hard energy. But it is not external hard energy, it comes from the internal, from the dantien," or center of the being. "The whole characteristic, the principle of yin/yang, is called gang rou xiang chi: This is Chen style taiji's special element. Gang is yang, rou is yin."

Within that duality is the hard side, bao fa jing, notes Eckert. This translates as an exertion of force, but again, that force is not external, but an exertion that proceeds out of the dantien, using the internal energy of Chen Taiji. Within the complementary element of softness is zou hua. Though the energy is taken away from the partner, the energy is still present and is used, a synergistic effect between the master and the attacker.

"In the Chen Taiji which was handed down, there are equal elements of hardness and softness," says Master Chen. "Now in taiji and all over China, even in the wing chun training center, mostly what you are seeing is the soft side; in some cases you are seeing the soft side which does not have any internal energy, so it is empty. If you are playing good taiji with good internal energy but are not practicing the bao fa jing, then in push hands training you might still be able to achieve yin jing lou kong" - which Eckert roughly translates to "leading the partner into emptiness" - "But you cannot do anything with it because you have no explosive force.

"The partner attacks and his energy is coming toward your body," Master Chen explains. "If you do not do something, you will fall down and his attack will be successful. Other styles' theories are very different." In the Chen Family taiji, the theory is called ying jang yong tan in which the practitioner uses the techniques of Chen Taiji, twisting or turning on the dantien in a spiraling action that is constantly circling. Using these skills you understand the partner's energy; then you lead the partner into an "empty place." "Visualize what it might be to jump out of an airplane with no parachute - that weightless, helpless feeling," explains Eckert.

"The point of traditional handed down gong fu originally was for self-defense," says Master Chen. "To take the guy down to the ground where he could barely move is the ultimate goal of the original gung fu - what you could really use. But if you are playing in a competition or at home just to learn the theories, then you add just enough bao fa jing to control the opponent without killing him or hurting him. Our push hands is peaceful; we are friends, not hooligans.

"We have all the fundamental training, the push hands that we practice, the forms and the hand methods. Why do we do it? We do it for the purpose of practicing push hands training. That is the ultimate goal. The point is that there are a lot of energies that we practice; the first four are peng, lu, ji and an. Those energies need to come together to the level where you blend and harmonize all these kinds of energies. That is understanding and hearing and feeling the partner's energy. We practice push hands to have that connection."

The ninth generation of the Chen Family Taiji, more than 300 years ago, developed free step push hands, which is also referred to as jin yi tui yi, meaning "forward one step, back one step," notes Eckert. The other main types of push hands stem from this first method. Included are ding bu, which means fixed step push hands; he bu, which is closed step; jin sin tui san, which is three steps forward, three steps back; and da teng da lu, which is the same as free step, but the posture is lower, with the buttocks almost touching the ground. It is a dedication to the traditional methods which differentiates Chen Family taiji - and the benefits it can produce.

According to Master Chen, the Chen Family taiji's advantage is that "everyone can do it. If you're old, young, in good health or bad. Two important concepts within the Chen Family taiji boxing are chan si jing," which translates into silk-reeling energy, "and lou xuan" which means a spiraling motion. "Using these energies, it is possible for a smaller-framed person, such as a woman, to defeat a larger opponent using these internal energies rather than external force. You don't have to build up our body to be successful at this."

Sharing the Treasure
"When China opened to the world in the 1980s, that was very important for the development of Chen Taiji, because people came in and researched this. Many people went to China and were looking for martial arts. Chen Family taiji is a treasure of China, and now it's a gift to the world, not just harbored in Chen village," says Master Chen. "I want people to learn from it and benefit. Also, throwing it out to the world will create controversy and promote more research, which is essential to the health and long-term well-being of Chen Taiji. I don't have all the answers, or claim to be the foremost world authority. I offer this to you in hopes of further research, to make it go further."